Life and Death in Vietnam’s “Television War”

Exclusive: During the Vietnam War, American TV executives wanted the most graphic “bang bang” for their nightly news so they pushed their camera crews into danger, a culture described in a new book reviewed by Don North.

In February 1967, Japanese cameraman Tony Hirashiki along with a Vietnamese soundman and myself – then an ABC News correspondent – jumped from a hovering Huey helicopter onto Landing Zone C for Operation Junction City. We were with 25,000 lst Infantry troops for what was billed as the largest search-and-destroy operation since American forces took up a combat role in Vietnam.

ABC News correspondent Don North and cameraman Tony Hirashiki on Operation Junction City, 1967.

Amid the smoke of earlier bombardments, we did the required “standupper” as an introduction to our story. In those days, I was connected by a wire umbilical cord to my colleagues. We were a team bound together and acting in silent accord to document the day’s battle. But it often was Hirashiki’s footage that told the story more eloquently and dramatically than any words that I or other correspondents could muster.

In his 10 years of work in Vietnam, Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki would become a legend among the news media covering the war. He thought little of his own safety and had a burning desire to show war as it was. His filmic brilliance helped turn a reporter’s work into vivid and striking stories about a complex conflict.

While cameramen had recorded conflicts for generations – Matthew Brady revolutionized the public’s perception of warfare by capturing grisly Civil War scenes on his still camera a century earlier – the work of Hirashiki and others in Vietnam produced an intimacy and immediacy to the Vietnam War that had a similarly profound impact.

The Vietnam War was called “The Living Room War” because it was delivered to the televisions of Americans on a nightly basis – and the work of cameramen like Hirashiki was crucial to that extraordinary experience.

As ABC News president Elmer Lower said, “The television news cameraman is rather a new breed. There is no exact profile of the man. First of all, he is an artist, a craftsman, not just a picture taker. The camera is an extension of the man himself. … like his bravery, his patience is congenital. Hours of waiting for something to break. The location is immaterial. A battlefield? He’ll go.

“Gunfire? Well, that makes it a little tougher for him to take his time on production values but he’s the first man in. He is really most comfortable in a place where the action is. He has a seventh sense about impending movement. He’ll tell you he lucked into a sequence, but I often feel he knew it was coming.”

Now, Tony Hirashiki has written a memoir of his years in Vietnam that is one of the most insightful tales of working for television news in Vietnam. His On the Frontlines of the Television War should take a place on library shelves with the best accounts of journalists working the war, like John Laurence’s “The Cat from Hue”.

Ted Koppel, who was another veteran ABC News correspondent in Vietnam, writes an introduction that is an accurate profile of the Tony his friends knew.

“Tony Hirashiki was simply the best cameraman to cover the Vietnam war. His soaring video, often acquired at great personal risk, gave wings to even the most mundane narration. For those of us who worked with him, he was also a source of gentleness and joy in a place where both were in terribly short supply.”

A Personal Saga

Yet, Hirashiki’s personal saga of the Vietnam War began uncertainly as he arrived at Saigon airport in 1966 direct from Tokyo. He spoke little English and had a note pinned to his jacket addressed to the ABC Bureau in Saigon, like a child on his first day at summer camp.

ABC News cameraman Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki with an Auricon sound camera.

But his personal courage and his commitment to his craft soon made him a seasoned veteran at plunging into dangerous assignments and returning with stunning footage. One day when I was working with Tony, we were advancing up a rocky cliff with a company of U.S. Marines when he disappeared for a short time. Apparently he had found a better angle from which to film the risky ascent of the Marines.

It wasn’t until many months later when I viewed our finished story in a New York studio, that I was amazed to see Tony’s artful film of the Marines climbing past colorful arrangements of wild flowers and orchids as Tony pulled focus on the flowers and climbing Marines, a surprising reminder during a lull in battle that a world of beauty still prevailed.

As ABC correspondent Ned Potter once wrote of Hirashiki’s work, “Beautifully composed pictures, even in the most chaotic of circumstances, came naturally to him. Some of that is a matter of instinct, but more of it comes from having the soul of a poet.”

During his 10 years in Vietnam, Hirashiki saved every script and dope sheet and kept a careful dairy. He never studied English, but from foul-mouthed G.I.’s and stressed-out colleagues, he amassed an impressive vocabulary of swear words.

Over his decade in Vietnam, Hirashiki worked with 35 correspondents of varied experience and temperament. The Vietnam bureau was a revolving door for journalists, with many reluctant to sign up for more than six months or a year. Tony outlasted them all and, in his book, charitably describes them, even the prima donnas or the correspondents who shirked combat assignments when their turn came.

A Favorite Correspondent

One of Hirashiki’s favorite reporters to team up with was Roger Peterson, a 6-foot-4-inch former U.S. Marine who worked the war like the backstreets of his hometown, Chicago. Peterson was a very fair and thorough journalist who carried a 50-pound pack into battle and two canteens, one for water and the other for Jack Daniels to help relax when the day’s struggles were over.

In 1966, corespondent Roger Peterson, wounded and waiting for a Medivac helicopter, attempts a report but was unable to finish.

One day covering a U.S. Marine operation near Con Thien, Peterson heard gunfire and – out of habit – rushed toward the sound with a hot mike. Loud and clear on the tape was the sound of a bullet smashing into his arm.

“Roger, are you interested in doing a standupper,” asked Tony to which Peterson responded with an ad-libbed description of his wound and the precarious position of the U.S. Marine unit they had accompanied into battle — until the morphine and pain overwhelmed him and he was carried unconscious onto a “Dust off” chopper.

Meanwhile, in New York at the ABC news bureau, Peterson’s bravery and tenacity were cited to me, a new reporter, as how to behave, “this is how to be an ABC correspondent.”

“Did you see Peterson’s report tonight, Don,” asked one of the ABC executives. “That was the ultimate on-scene report.”

My God, I thought, is that what we are expected to do to report the war? Yes, it seems it was. Roger and Tony set the bar high for those of us who followed into the dangerous rice paddies. When the bullets got close most of our ABC reporters thought about what to say on camera if they took a hit, always wondering if we would be cool enough to do it like Roger did.

Hirashiki admits in his book that although covering combat was more dangerous it was often simpler to shoot, more exciting and sure to make the air promptly. However, if a news crew missed the “bang bang” that some rival crew got, angry news executives back in New York would fire off a complaint, known ironically as a “rocket.”

Meanwhile, feature stories, although thoughtful on a complex war, without the “bang bang,” would often sit on the shelf in New York and be forgotten.

Looking for Angles

In his memoir, Tony Hirashiki describes correspondent Bill Brannigan as one who always looked for unique angles on stories even without intense combat. In the village of Quon Loi one day, the lst Division was gathering for a major push. Young soldiers just out of basic training were nervous as they lined up to board helicopters for the landing zone, known as an LZ.

Correspondent Bill Brannigan interviews PFC Ronnie Compton for a report called “The New Soldier” an in-depth profile of a soldier facing his first combat.

“Bill picked out one soldier, PFC Ronnie Compton from Pinsonfork, a small Kentucky coal town, and told me to stay with him,” Hirashiki writes.

“Every once in a while Bill would ask him a question. ‘What are you thinking about or are you scared?’ Compton answered, ‘Honestly I’m scared. It’s my first combat. I want to make sure I don’t make any mistakes.’”

Hirashiki continues, “I had my doubts. Going into combat with an entirely green unit seemed dangerous. I sat next to the door so I could jump out first and kept on filming the faces of these grim and determined young men. There was gunfire at the drop zone. The pilot wasn’t going to touch down, just hover. We would all have to jump. A hot LZ is both deadly serious and often amusing at the same time. Our Kentucky boy fell on his butt, but stood up quickly and moved out briskly.

“We caught up as he reached a rubber plantation and the fire fight began. Brannigan: ‘How do you feel now?’ … Compton stopped firing for a moment and when he answered, it was as if the young boy had somehow disappeared, and been replaced by a soldier.”

Compton: “I was tense when the helicopter landed, but I’m not scared anymore.”

Then, Hirashiki writes, the young soldier “moved forward into the trees. He walked confidently, all his training coming back to him, as step by step he disappeared into the forest. Bill said that through the story of this one boy, we could tell the story of thousands of American soldiers.”

Rocket for Tony

Con Thien was known to local missionaries as “the Hill of Angels,” but to occupying U.S. Marines it was a little piece of hell. Just two miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), it became a duel between North Vietnamese long-range artillery and U.S. airpower. In one week, over 3,000 rounds of mortar, artillery and rockets landed at Con Thien.

On the frontlines of the Television War – A Legendary War Carmeraman in Vietnam Hirashaki

It became the top story in Vietnam, but the U.S. military declared that TV crews had to take turns at the base, shoot for two hours and pull out as a new crew came in.

“The two hours I was in Con Thien, the North Vietnamese must have been taking a break because no shells came in,” Hirashiki writes. “It was good footage but it wasn’t ‘bang bang.’ When we left a CBS crew came in and they got slammed. The artillery barrage was intense, and they got great footage of explosions and men scrambling for cover. The next day I got my first rocket from New York.”

“Why did CBS have exciting incoming scenes at Con Thien, but ABC had only outgoing scenes? Nick Archer”

Dick Rosenbaum, our young Saigon bureau chief, wasn’t intimidated and shot back an immediate reply by telex to New York: “We can’t force our cameraman to wait and cover incoming scenes at besieged outpost Con Thien. Dick Rosenbaum.”

Rosenbaum later described his attitude, writing: “If our crew goes out the right side of a chopper, they may get no action. If the competition goes out the left side and find action how does your crew get over to that side under fire? Sometimes you can best describe getting good combat footage as luck.”

Hirashiki writes, “I appreciated Dick’s support but I was even more determined to get better footage.” The danger of pushing crews in the field was realized by most of the bosses at ABC News and they often flew in to experience the war with their employees.

Even the President of ABC News, Elmer Lower, took his turn. As he arrived in Saigon a few days after Tet, he discovered the bureau was short soundmen.

Bureau chief Rosenbaum jokingly suggested he help out as a soundman, which Lower took seriously and became a soundman for several days of dangerous street demonstrations.

Elmer Lower, president of ABC News, fills in as a soundman.

Lower even agreed to fly into the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sahn, which was under siege. But as the C-123 was about to land incoming rounds hit the runway and the pilot aborted the flight. While refuelling, Rosenbaum asked if Lower was ready to try again.

“Nope, ” he said. “I’ll try anything once.”

Most weeks the “herograms” for exceptional work outnumbered the “rockets” and many of the “rockets” were fired off for more prosaic reasons. I managed to collect a file of nasty “rockets” for being late accounting for my expenses.

But after producing a heart-breaking story at Con Thien about Marines striving to save another Marine critically wounded by an incoming North Vietnamese rocket (the real kind that explode), my cameraman Nguyen Van Qui and I received the following telex from New York:

“I would like to state that I have covered the news as a reporter and screened a great amount of film in the past twenty one years but never have I been moved as I was when I screened your marine dying in Con Thien. You all displayed great courage and great pride in your work. Nick Archer”

The Pressures

Tony Hirashiki and the other crews would often work 24-hour days in the field and when on standby play non-stop poker. Hirashiki recalls a favorite telex about that pastime:

Tony Hirashiki, during down time from the field, plays poker with fellow cameramen in Saigon.

“There were days in 1973 we had no assignments and a number of us from all three networks would gather occasionally for a friendly game of poker. A young administrator recently arrived from New York was scandalized and sent a letter to Nick Archer exposing us for our supposed transgression.

On the open telex that all bureaus could read, Archer answered: “Re your letter. When you have been where they’ve been, and done what they’ve done, you too may play poker. Regards Archer.”

Regarding the dangers, there were several cases of correspondents refusing combat assignments that confronted the bosses with a dilemma. A veteran war correspondent Sam Jaffe, who had experienced both Korea and Vietnam, after three weeks in Vietnam following the Tet offensive wrote: “I won’t cover Khe Sahn, and I refuse to go back to Hue. The longer you stay here, the more inevitable it is that you’re going to be hurt, maimed or killed.”

In his memoir, Hirashiki writes, “What did that mean for the rest of us? Could we refuse a dangerous assignment? I had almost never said no, so I really couldn’t be certain. It was always a confusing situation. New York was very concerned for our safety, but at the same time, they expected us to deliver the goods – in many ways a bit like soldiers on the frontlines.

“In the course of the Vietnam war, according to the Newseum in Washington there were sixty-seven journalists killed or missing. Our ABC News bureau suffered six wounded. Two were killed during the war and two believed experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) committed suicide after the war.”

The End

Hirashiki’s best friend was fellow ABC cameraman Terry Khoo, a Singaporean Chinese who had been covering the war since 1962. He was considered the doyen of cameramen, spoke four languages and was highly respected for his dignified character.

ABC cameramen Terry Khoo and Tony Hirashiki sport matching goatees.

Terry Khoo was as competitive as anyone, but shared his judgments to keep friends safe. In late 1972, it was Terry’s judgment that the war was ending and was no longer meaningful for him or Tony to risk everything.

In his memoir, Hirashiki writes: “What Terry said was similar to the feeling the remaining American troops had. Don’t be the last to die in Vietnam for a mistake. Terry had found his true love, Winnie Ing, the Hong Kong ABC office secretary. They would be married and Terry would accept a new job with ABC News at the new bureau in Bonn, West Germany”

After finishing his last assignment, Khoo was at the Huong Giang hotel in Hue. He was packed and was briefing his replacement, a friend of his from Singapore, Sam Kai Faye. A rumor circulated that a North Vietnamese tank had been spotted west of Highway One. Terry Khoo wanted to check it out and give Sam a final lesson in the field. All his friends urged him not to go, his flight back to Saigon would leave in a few hours.

As the pair drove off amid warnings to be careful, Terry Khoo’s last words were “It’s all fate anyway, baby, so play it cool.”

Arriving at the scene of a reported skirmish, they spotted a line of South Vietnamese troops moving into the tall grass west of the road and ran to catch up. An enemy soldier firing from ambush hit Sam Kai Faye and Terry Khoo went to aid him, but they were pinned down as the firing continued.

Troops couldn’t recover their bodies for three days. Their coffins were flown back together to Singapore with a grieving Tony Hirashiki and many colleagues of the ABC bureau. They asked if it was possible to bury Terry and Sam side by side, the way they died, but Sam was a Christian and Terry a Buddhist so they were given separate funerals and buried in different cemeteries. Terry Khoo bequeathed enough of his life insurance so that today, 50 years later, medical students are still receiving scholarships.

Tony Hirashiki visits the spot where Terry and Sam were ambushed and died near Hue.

Hirashiki remembers. “That day, it became my war. Even though I had been covering the war for many years, I had always kept a distance from it, trying to be neutral and unbiased. Whoever killed my brothers, Terry and Sam, was my enemy. I shouted and cried out for the loss of my best friends and cursed at the top of my lungs those who had taken away my hopes and dreams of the future.”

On April 30, 1975, Tony Hirashiki shot his last story as Saigon fell to the advancing North Vietnamese Army. He took off in a U.S. Marine helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy heading for the USS Blue Ridge in the South China Sea. He recalls:

“While our helicopter was rising I could see the airport was burning. We flew out over Saigon. I had flown over and filmed the city many times and thought it was beautiful. But now I had changed and the country had changed. I finally took the camera off my shoulder. I realized I was crying and that had been why it was so hard to focus my shots.

“I cried quietly, not as loud as I did when Terry died. Finally this was my war. As we flew I cursed silently with every swear word I knew. And cried.”

As Tony Hirashiki worked on his memoir for eight years, writing first in Japanese and then in English, he enlisted the help of our ABC News colleagues to recall what he didn’t have in his notes. Terry Irving, who started his career at ABC News as a motorcycle courier before becoming a producer on “Nightline,” helped edit and hone Tony’s tale with panache.